U.S. Army soldiers run towards a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as they are extracted after completing an aerial traffic control point mission near Tal Afar, Iraq, 5 June, 2006
This article is a counterpoint to Chris Newton’s Millennials at the Gate: The Wary Inheritors of American Foreign Policy
In his article, Millennials at the Gate: The Wary Inheritors of American Foreign Policy, Chris Newton argues that U.S. foreign policy disasters over the past two decades have made American millennials bad at conducting foreign policy. During his critique, Mr. Newton identifies my previous article, The Not-So United Front Against the Islamic State, as an exemplar of millennials’ misguided belief in isolationism. Unfortunately, Mr. Newton failed to answer the main question I posed at the beginning of my article: What should the United States do to counter the Islamic State?
Mr. Newton hints at an answer when he says that the disparate interests of the actors in the Middle East present an opportunity to the United States, rather than an obstacle. However, Mr. Newton never specifies how the United States can unite this array of interests into a common anti-IS front. No one disputes that an essential part of foreign policy consists of finding compromise among competing interests, but when the parties’ interests are too contrasting, is compromise possible? Russia and Iran are helping Assad stay in power; the United States and its Arab allies want him removed. Turkey is trying to kill Kurds; the United States wants to give them weapons. Clearly, the enemies of America’s enemy are not friends in a messy Middle East. Thus, the hope of a multilateral anti-IS front remains quixotic.
Moreover, a multilateral coalition is not necessary to defeat IS. Even though the U.S. does have the capability to try to bomb them out of existence, starting another massive counter-insurgency campaign in the Middle East is not the right response. Counter-insurgency campaigns are grueling, take a long time to complete, and success is not guaranteed. Vietnam was a 20-year cat-and-mouse game which the U.S. could not win, and even though the 2001/2002 Afghanistan campaign was a fantastic tactical success, the U.S. military is asking for thousands of troops to stay in that country after 2016. A full-scale counter-IS conflict in the Middle East will entail a generation-long investment of blood and treasure. For most of this conflict, little progress will be made and an end will not be in sight. At the end of it, there will be nothing to stop another threatening insurgency from rising up in another part of the Middle East, prompting the U.S. to pursue a jihadist whack-a-mole strategy around the region. If George W. Bush’s post-2006 approval ratings are any indication, the American public will have little patience for this.
Though this might come as a surprise, the U.S. does not stand to gain much from a full-scale anti-IS campaign. Total IS military strength is less than the strength of two U.S. army divisions, and IS does not pose a huge threat to the American homeland, because they are too focused on targets in the Middle East. In addition, most of IS territory is composed of empty desert. Thus, the benefit of a military intervention against IS would be the defeat of an enemy which did not pose much of a threat to American lives. That would come at the cost of squandering resources which could be used to maintain the U.S. global leadership which Mr. Newton so champions. When it comes to a full-scale intervention against IS, the game is not worth the candle.
Does this mean that the United States should retreat from the Middle East in the face of this difficulty? No; just because engaging in a full-scale intervention is unwise, this does not mean that other strategies should not be tried. Mr. Newton is correct to say that the fight against IS deserves the “full panoply of foreign policy tools.” The United States should use its role as the leader of NATO to pressure Turkey and the Kurds to find a ceasefire. Drone strikes should be used to take out IS leaders, IS meeting centers, or IS facilities key to the group’s infrastructure. The U.S. should use its role as the leader of global economic institutions to find a way to obstruct IS’ black-market revenue stream. Finally, the U.S. should give arms to regional allies who join the fray, even at the risk of those weapons falling into the hands of IS.
It is clear that the question of whether to enter a conflict or not in the Middle East hits at a larger distinction between military engagement and military intervention. Military engagement refers to the general U.S. military presence around the globe, while military intervention refers to the use of a U.S. military campaign to achieve American interests. Mr. Newton fails to realize that it is entirely possible to support U.S. military engagement while remaining skeptical of U.S. military intervention. Millennials contribute to foreign policy when they question the value of intervention, but they doom foreign policy when they criticize engagement.
Millennial isolationists argue that military force can only make a mess of things and that the whole notion of U.S. involvement around the globe is imperialistic. That may very well be the case, but that does not mean the U.S. should implement an isolationist grand strategy. Isolationism would result in a U.S. retrenchment that undercuts the cooperative economic and security institutions established since WWII. Most millennials would agree that the WTO, open lanes of commerce, the UN, and NATO are good things. However, U.S. military presence around the globe is necessary to the maintenance of these institutions. Alliances are stronger and commerce is more interconnected because U.S. security presence in the Straits of Malacca, the Panama Canal, and the Mediterranean underwrites the contemporary liberal order. Like a fire going out when oxygen leaves the room, the absence of U.S. involvement in the world would lead to the collapse of today’s more peaceful and cooperative status quo.
Thus, Mr. Newton and I concur that isolationism is an imprudent strategy and that the U.S. should pursue military engagement around the globe. Nevertheless, American millennials’ skepticism towards the value of military intervention can be beneficial for U.S. foreign policy. Millennial isolationists are right to point out that the use of military force could be inimical or unnecessary to U.S. foreign policy objectives. The 2003 Iraq War created more terrorists than it killed, and the United States could have won the Cold War without wasting tens of thousands of lives in Vietnam. There are thus legitimate reasons for millennials to be cynical about foreign policy. However, as millennials move into positions of power, they cannot solely focus on the instances where U.S. military force produced negative outcomes. By doing so, they acquire biased perceptions of how U.S. power affects the world, which causes them to advocate for disastrous isolationist policies. For millennials to be good at foreign policy, they need to couple their healthy skepticism of U.S military intervention with a consideration of how U.S. global leadership is a boon to the world.
Tyler Bowen is a first-year Ph.D. student at Yale University, concentrating on International Security.